Games just happened among youngsters at any and every opportune moment back then — after church, during recess and lunch at school, at peanut boilings, cane grindings and family gatherings. A time traveler from today might see them as unstructured, but they were guided by rules and rituals, sometimes negotiated in the moment.
The easiest games to put into play quickly were “catch” and hide and seek (A.K.A. hide and go seek) in varied forms. The first issue was who would be the catcher of runners or seeker of hiders. Rituals provided solutions. There were chants to sort out players. “Acky backy sody (soda) cracker; acky backy boo, acky backy sody cracker; out goes you.” Depending upon agreed upon rules, the “you” might be the catcher — not a preferred role — or a runner with the catcher being the final “you.”
There were other chants to the same effect. The first time I heard and was very puzzled by “acky backy”, I was 3 or 4 years old observing a bunch of older boys organizing a game of catch after evening church services while parents visited. The kid self-selected to get things going with “acky backy” was lanky, all knobby knees and elbows. I never learned the meaning of “acky backy”, but in time, did learn that the organizer was Charles Slater, older brother of Annette, who, years later, became my wife.
Whether at church, school or family gatherings, these pick-up games were not supervised by adults. If a disagreement became loud, a father would clear his throat or a mother would admonish her child, “You all play pretty now.” Nothing else was said or done then, but further discussion might follow at home. I never understood how my mother could see so much while paying attention to conversations with other adults.
The school day offered two opportunities for games, morning recess and lunch. Other activities were quickly done to leave time for play. Students usually separated themselves by class and gender. There were girls’ games: jump rope, hop-scotch, jack stones (called “bob jacks” there and then). At the country school where I went for my first two years, the girls played “pop whip”, which involved several people linking hands and running downhill until the “cracker” stopped and the rest swung in an arc. Those at the “pop” end of the line usually went tumbling. Not a game for sissies.
Boys shot marbles in various formats. Marbles might be arranged in circles of varied dimensions or an ellipsis. Game rules varied by format. The player who would shoot first was chosen by ritual. Each would pitch his “shooter” marble toward “taw,” a line in the dirt a few feet away, distance from taw defining the shooting order. Usually, one player would call, “Tips and ties mine.” That meant that if his shooter struck or was struck by another’s or if there was a tie in distance from taw, he had first rights.
During my year and a half at Cobbtown School, some boys played a rough and tumble game called “buckety buck.” They chose sides, four to six players each. The strongest boy on the "it" side bent over and shouldered up to the flagpole or a tree. Other players lined up behind, each bent over, arms around the waist of the one in front and head tucked down next to his teammate’s hip. Then members of the other team would jump on the backs of the "it" team as far forward as possible because if there was not room for all, the jumpers lost and became "it." If one fell off, the result was the same. If the "it" team collapsed under the weight, they had to endure the assault again. If they held up and all the jumpers found space on their backs, the chief jumper held up a hand displaying a number of fingers and called, “Buckety buck, how many fingers I got up?” The “captain” of the "it" team called out a guess and a correct answer won for his team. If it continues to hold up under the weight, further guesses were allowed until he gave the right answer or his line collapsed.
Equipment for more typical games like baseball was scarce. A bat could be crafted from a narrow board, which worked well enough with a sponge ball of proper size.
On those occasions when a real baseball bat, ball and at least some gloves were available, there was a ritual for “choosing up sides.” One “captain” — owner of the bat — chose a worthy rival to lead the other team and tossed the bat to him to be caught near the middle or fat end. Then he grasped the bat just above the other’s hand and they alternated until one firmly held the knob end. The winner got first choice among the waiting players. Yes, it was a bit humiliating to be the last one chosen.
The games we played were profound learning experiences. We learned without knowing it that rules and rituals are part of living with others. We learned to negotiate how to define the reality of the moment and then live within that negotiated reality. How primitive of us!
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.